Saturday, 21 April 2012

Eating à-la-française is not just about food

One of my preferred eateries here in Lyon

Elegantly-laid tables, fine wines, beautifully prepared dishes. These are just a few of the many images that are conjured up when discussing what eating in France is like, but the reality is somewhat different. Contrary to widely-held views, eating here is not first and foremost about enjoying the food. It’s about enjoying the people who sit down to eat it.

I’m writing this entry in response to a commenter on The Guardian who suggested that I write about French cheeses, of which he is a fan. Having thought about it for a while though, all my ideas for this subject seemed to revolve around the usual kind of gushing praise that British and other newspapers heap upon French food in their ‘Food & Drink’ sections. 

Articles on cheese in these papers often talk about bringing a fine selection of cheeses out of the fridge on time and laying them lovingly onto elegant cheese platters and selecting four of five excellent bottles, one for each cheese, and at least two different breads, before going on to relate the exquisite sensations to be enjoyed whilst eating and drinking each cheese and wine etcetera. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do that, so I hope the commenter concerned will understand why and forgive me.

The majority of French people do know how to select and serve cheese of course, and they also know how to eat correctly in good restaurants and prepare finely-tuned cuisine, but it isn’t what many of them prefer to do, which is to burn the good etiquette book and chuck it out the window.

A first social invitation to eat often involves a more-or-less formal table. Your host may even serve your wine, your food is served for you, and in no circumstances do you help in any way. You’re the guest after all. But if all goes well and everyone enjoys each other’s company, subtle changes to the conduct of subsequent meals together will occur.

You may begin to hear things like “how about if I bring the serving bowls in and we all help ourselves?” and your host may well hold his empty glass out and ask you to fill it because the bottle is nearer to you and he can’t reach it. Politics and/or religion may begin to creep into the conversation.

If this happens to you it’s a good bet that your company is appreciated and that your hosts would like to lighten up on the rules and become more relaxed and familiar with you. You should seize opportunities like this and help further them.

You will soon find yourself mopping up sauces with your bread and helping to clear the plates in preparation for the next dish. Bread connoisseurs who know each other smell bread from extremely close up to appreciate the aroma, and so shall you. 

Elbows will eventually be put on tables, and you won’t get a cheese plate anymore because, like everyone else, you’ll just clean a corner of your main dish plate with bread in which to place your cheese, cheese which you have cut with your own knife after wiping it on your bread. And if people are eating different desserts, they may well ask if they can “just have a little taste of yours” before dipping into it with their own spoon.

Now you’re getting somewhere. Conversation will become more incisive, ribald jokes will be told, and it’s now that you begin to realise what eating in France is all about, which is developing relationships and not showing off your impeccable table manners. What constitutes good table manners here can, and often does, vary according to who one is eating with. The food is important, sure, but the whole exercise is ultimately geared to enjoying the company of people whom one appreciates in a relaxed and unfettered manner.

In fact, some of the very best and most satisfying meals I’ve ever eaten in France happen when longstanding friends gather together and a couple of them, or I myself, have just been to the local market. So it’s roll-your-sleeves-up time and all the charcuterie and excellent cheeses are just plonked down in the centre of the kitchen table, still in their wrappers. Napkins are kitchen paper roll. Add a couple of good breads and a few bottles of local wine – fine wines would be out of place and inappropriate here - and it’s every man woman and child for him or herself. Banter and fun guaranteed. Heaven.

That’s what real eating à-la-française means to me. Eating for many French people is first and foremost a vehicle – an excuse even – for relaxed, informal and enjoyable social interaction. This is why the sooner the etiquette book gets burned the sooner everyone can start enjoying eating and each other. And that is precisely what art de vivre is all about in its day-to-day sense.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

McDonalds and the Battle for France

A classy restaura...sorry, a McDonald's, new style.
The announcement that McDonalds is to launch a new product in France called the McBaguette has attracted a lot of attention from the media but this news is just a minor event in what has been a long battle to seduce French consumers.

McDonalds suffered from a highly negative image in France until the late nineties, when many people thought that fast-food meant bad-food. This turned France into a recalcitrant rebel in Ronald’s eyes, because he had managed to successfully introduce the company’s products into most European countries as well as many other countries in other parts of the world without having to adapt them to local tastes any more than was strictly necessary, which wasn’t much.

This meant that the company had to come up with a major and multi-pronged plan of marketing attack to change France’s mind, and the results have been fairly spectacular. It has taken just less than ten years for the company to overrun most opposition to its products, and the way they have done this has been to introduce a bit of France into this erstwhile all-American product.

The offensive began in the early 2000’s with the major revamping of McDonalds’ restaurant premises. The French like to be in comfortable, aesthetically pleasing and relaxed surroundings when eating and many older restaurants were adapted to offer cleaner and more attractive décor and lighting. Many newer outlets have taken this idea even further, with inventive seating arrangements for in-place clients which are situated as far away as possible from the queues of people waiting to be served. The exteriors have been designed with more care being taken to make them blend into the local décor in which they are situated. There are even some outlets with urban-and-grunge-inspired interiors in some cities. 

At the same time, another front was opened, that of French objections to the size of the company’s carbon footprint via its use of imported products. An aggressive policy of using French raw food products was introduced where possible. Even if you hadn’t read about this in the press you certainly were made aware of it in the restaurants, where leaflets and other supports trumpeted the new policy.  French beef began to be used, lettuce, tomatoes and other accompaniments too, and McDonalds struck up highly-publicised supply deals with local producers. They finally managed to respect their Kyoto obligations and 2011 saw the start of a drive to use as much renewable energy as possible.

Simultaneously, and perhaps even most importantly, McDonald’s began to offer healthier products which are appreciated by the French, such as a choice of salads and fruit salads. Also, authentic French products began to appear. Sandwiches began to be made with local cheeses such as Comté, Cantal and Roquefort, croissants and other pastries became available in the morning, and local specialities such as Cannelles from Aquitaine were introduced. Top quality hamburgers were made using meat from the most renowned cattle-rearing regions of France. All of these changes were well-advertised and restaurants began distributing nutritional information on the various products.  And while all this was going on, Anglo-Saxon products such as Eggs and Bacon disappeared discreetly from menus.

All of which brings us to today, where some McDonalds have even introduced waiter service and are now serving coffee from ‘real’ expresso-making machines in porcelain cups. More initiatives of this sort are said to be in the pipeline. Who would have though this possible 15 years ago?

The results of these efforts to overcome French resistance speak for themselves. The French now spend more per head for food eaten at table in McDonalds restaurants than any other nation, and they are the world’s biggest or second-biggest – depending on which stats you consult – consumers of McDonalds products in the world.

The introduction of the McBaguette therefore comes as no surprise. It is a totally coherent move in the context of McDonalds' marketing policy for France, and other, similar, products shall surely follow.

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, McDonalds have largely won their battle to seduce French consumers, but it cannot be denied either that their products are of a much higher quality than they were 15 years ago, and that is largely due to the exacting culinary demands of the French. And the French have every right to be proud of that, so they too have won a battle of sorts.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Hollande will either save or sink the European left

A socialist arguing with Thatcher
It is ironic that one of the poorest French presidential campaigns for many years should also be of capital importance for socialist parties across Europe. 

If François Hollande wins he will have given them hope and inspiration for their own campaigns, but if he loses, particularly against an extremely unpopular president and after enjoying a substantial lead since the start, the European left could be condemned to years spent out in the cold.

Britain, Spain and Portugal are among a list of socialist-run countries who were paradoxically thrown out of office at least partially because of the economic crisis which began with the sub-prime scandal, all of which shows that there is no such thing as ‘fair’ in politics.

But things are as they are, and socialist parties are today in the unenviable position of having to stand by ineffectually as conservative governments all over Europe vote draconian belt-tightening measures into law, thus condemning their citizens to several years of relative hardship.

Now however, the electoral calendar dictates that Nicolas Sarkozy has to place his faith and future in the ballot box. It’s the last thing he would have wanted of course, given that even before the campaign began it was being widely accepted on all sides that his immense unpopularity would give Hollande a substantial advantage.

And so it has proved, with Hollande still maintaining a sizeable second-round lead, albeit reduced from its initial size, of five to six points, depending on which poll you read. This is good news for him of course, and he must be hoping that anti-Sarkozy voting intentions will hold up, even if they aren’t necessarily indicative of a positive vote for his own policies. 

This is why other European socialist parties who are themselves awaiting elections at one time or another are watching this contest anxiously. They, like Hollande, are being lambasted by conservative governments and presidents who allege that they simply would not be able to implement spending policies based on taxing the rich and spending the proceeds, as this would not in itself do much to reduce deficits. But if they win power they will be in a position to change the many drastic debt-reducing measures introduced by Europe and the CEB. And if Hollande is elected they will take heart from the assumption that the much dreamed of voter backlash against conservative leaders and policies may have begun and will help them too.

However, although Hollande could hardly have wished for better circumstances in which to launch an election campaign it is also true that if he fails to win he will be the second French socialist candidate in five years to lose an apparently unloseable election.

And if Sarkozy is re-elected it will have become clear that although he is immensely unpopular, voters will have decided that Hollande’s alternative policies on the economy were not credible despite their apparent attractions.

This nightmare scenario is everything that other socialist parties are currently dreading. After all, if Hollande cannot win this election, what possible hope could they - and European socialism itself - have for the future?

Sunday, 1 April 2012

The most interesting thing about France is the French

French people. Just look at how different they are(n't)
One very enriching way of enjoying life here in France is to find out more about the French themselves. So just who are ‘the French’ exactly? Opinions will differ, but here are a few of my musings on the subject.

I like baguettes and French cuisine and wine as well as many more of the clichéd aspects and realities of life in France, but it seems to me that that’s not enough, and that it’s difficult to get the most out of living in any country without trying to understand its people and what makes them tick.  

The first clue for me came, although I didn’t realise it at the time, during a visit from my sister, who lives in Liverpool. It was her first visit to France and after just two days here in Lyon she suddenly asked “is today a day of national mourning or something?”

I answered that it wasn’t, that this was just a normal day. “What made you ask?” I enquired, curious. “Because I’ve noticed that very few people talk in the street here, or on the metro, and the clients in restaurants and bars seem very quiet and reserved compared to England. Nobody seems to laugh much either.”

I had all but forgotten that conversation nine months later when a French friend told me she was going to Liverpool because it was that year’s ‘European Culture Capital.’ She isn’t a particular adept of Anglo-Saxon culture or, indeed, of the Anglo-Saxon world in general. But despite her reservations about British food and the British way of life she bravely got on a plane and went.

I fully expected to be bombarded with her negative impressions of England when she returned, but when I next saw her, and to my great surprise, she declared that “I’ve been so depressed since I got back.” She explained that she’d fallen in love with Liverpool, its people, and England in general. She also said that people laughed and chatted away in the street, that pubs were animated and friendly, and that people dressed how they liked, whereas “here in France it’s all blue jeans and black coats except in summer, and nobody talks to anybody. They’re all so gloomy-looking and unexpressive.”

Her words tied in perfectly with those of my sister. What could this mean?

It all came full circle much later, during a conversation with a friend and emeritus French History professor. I related these anecdotes and he began his answer by evoking the well known French expression ‘pour vivre heureux, vivons cachés’ - literally ‘to live happily, let’s live hidden.’

We went on to discuss that in the context of the French Revolution, during and after which people had to be very careful about how they behaved in public and, more particularly, about what they said. 

That’s because saying or doing anything that could have been construed as being anti-revolutionary often resulted in the utterer receiving a one-way ticket to the guillotine. And that in turn, he theorised, may historically explain why French people are arguably less expansive in public than are, say, the British or Americans.

Opinions will differ on that of course, but I feel that trying to learn more about who the French are has undoubtedly enriched my life here. 

So, my tip on how to enjoy France to the full? Learn about the French, accept that they may be different to people in your country, and remember that even if their national characteristics may be different to yours, and that they are generally more reserved in public, they too tell dirty jokes, have a lot of insights into life and living, or not, cheat on their husbands and wives, or not, and they too do the shopping, go to work and clean up after the kids. And, of course, a meal at home with French friends is every bit as raucous and rambunctious as it would be if the guests were Anglo-Saxon.